If leftist intellectuals can be rock-stars (and somewhere there must be a guitar trashed by Thomas Piketty that proves they can), then Monday night at the Royal Festival Hall was a once-off gig by a supergroup.
Slavoj Zizek and Yanis Varoufakis, the Tom Waits and Julian Casablancas respectively of public intellectual leftism, were a big enough headline act. The veteran legend with the weird manners, the odd way of speaking and the crazy eyes. The guy in the leather jacket who you loved for a while but now you're not sure what he's doing (but who's so damn cool.) The Slovenian Marxist Freudian philosopher (and guide to perverts everywhere) and the Greek former Finance Minister under Syriza's first, great incarnation. First time on stage together. One night only.
Support act Srecko Horva (subversive Croatian philosopher and diva-wrangler at the South Bank Centre for the night) introduces the two headliners as they take the stage. "Good evening," he says and Varoufakis (who got a proper rock gig cheer as he took the stage in his trademark black leather jacket) says good evening too. Zizek says nothing. Horva asks him, like a surly lead guitarist, to say good evening to the nice people and Zizek growls into the microphone: "We'll see how good the evening is." Rapturous applause. That's the misanthrope we know and love. That's the guy we paid to see. Never mind Tom Waits, that's our Lemmy.
The amused and amusing aggression persists between Zizek and his stagemates throughout the event - at one point, after being asked to wrap up a long and very entertaining monologue, Zizek repeatedly shouts "fuck you!" at Horva, who smiles indulgently, because that's what we do with our internationalist treasures when they act up. Plus, the crowd loves it.
"Stupid, politically correct leftists" - Zizek
But the evening starts in a minor key as the events of three days earlier are reflected upon. ISIS' aim in the Paris attacks, Varoufakis says, "was to create closed minds and closed borders." There is some discussion of how, according to Zizek, "the Paris murders should be an instigation to us to become aware of all kinds of violence," rather than the automatic dash in some quarters to anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Vaoufakis agrees - something that bugs Zizek, who keeps promising entertaining disagreement. He apologises for it, in his way: "There will be blood!" Fans of Mick and Keef would expect nothing less. The economist tells a story of a pilot on a plane asking passengers to observe a minute's silence for the victims in Paris. Varoufakis wants another minute for Beirut, another for the 50 refugees who drowned recently in the Aegean Sea, and Horva suggests it might end up being a long, quiet flight.
"Humanitarian cynicism" is broadly discussed, as you'd expect as the wake of Paris carries the tricolor onto the western world's profile pics. Varoufakis sees its projection onto the London Eye as having value, making his qualifiedly pro-European point by saying: "fences and walls actually create more insecurity. They create tension and perpetually divide communities. They multiply over time and globalise." Throughout the evening, Varoufakis will argue that a reformed Europe is what is needed, despite the "deficit of democracy" both he and Zizek identify at Europe's heart and in its nature as a "cartel of heavy industry" that has recently co-opted farmers and bankers. Despite the EU's "deep contempt for democracy", he suggests that a few things might help to unify it in a positive way:
- Live-streaming EU elites' meetings.
- Creating a European version of the US food stamp programme.
- Creating a genuinely representative European Parliament to decide what powers the EU should have and how it should wield them.
The show is not all EuroPop, though. Zizek broadens our potential area of concern from Paris, where people look like and live like 'us' to violence experienced all over the world and beyond. To other countries that have been victims of terror, to the sexual violence experienced by a frightening number of women in South Africa and to violence committed against Palestinians by Israel - hitting more audience-specific high notes than a Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo.
"I'm a socialist, but I don't share my wife" - Varoufakis
But he also cautions at one point against romanticising the victims of violence. "The saddest lesson of terror," he says, is that "extreme suffering does not liberate, morally." Later, he rails against the "silent dismissal" by some on the left, "of every critique of Islamism as islamophobia," likening it to "stupid, politically correct leftists" who blamed the slaughter in Rwanda on neocolonialism. 'Don't patronise us,' some Rwandans have said to him. 'We're capable of evil, too.' "There is something deeply false," he says, "in this eternal self-accusation." He's speaking of the inevitable 'but...' that will follow leftist condemnations of the Paris attacks. "There is no 'but' for the true leftist."
It's all good stuff, enjoyable stuff, but delivered seriously, a band at the height of their powers in front of a friendly crowd, having fun but playing like motherfuckers. And like a lead guitarist caught up in the moment, Zizek hogs the spotlight, sparring entertainingly with his bandmate for the night. Asked by Horva to allow some time for Varoufakis to speak, he grumbles for the crowd:
"Brutally interrupted. I feel like a refugee."
"I will take you in," Varoufakis laughs.
"You will take me in," Zizek says, now playing up. "You'll share your food with me? You'll share your wife?"
Varoufakis, laughing, says: "I'm a socialist, but I don't share my wife."
"I'm different," Zizek quips. "I'll share my wife, but I don't share food."
The crowd laps up every drop of it. Everybody having a good time. It's the Royal Festival Hall, but I swear some of the people here are considering stage-diving. I can see it in their eyes. If the merch stall outside sold t-shirts as well as books, they'd make more money. For their collective. Obviously.
And then it happens. Horva introduces a video link by talking about "a real refugee" living close to the venue. Ears prick up. He can't mean.... He does. The pale visage of - audible gasp from the audience - Julian Assange appears on the video screen above them.
The crowd. Goes. Wild.
And he stays with them for the rest of the show. He talks Paris, ISIS, TTIP and the power of technology. "Silicon Valley's high-tech liberalism is the most aggressive ideology in the world," he says. "Radical Islam is the only other expanding ideology." Google (Or Google 3.0 - Newgle maybe) will one day run our public services, direct our governments. And India and China aren't challenging that future - they're speeding it.
"There needs to be a Christian Islam" - Assange
"There's a spiritual dimension to what's been going on. Geopolitics can't explain it all," he says about what's been happening in the Middle East, including the American tactic of trying to get the Assad Government to overreact. The spiritual malaise is illustrated by a chilling clip of Hillary Clinton (who he predicts is by far the most likely next incumbent of the White House) laughing, hysterically overjoyed, at the news that Muammar Gaddafi is dead. "That is Hillary's response to a head of state being sodomised and killed," he says. "What's the effect of that?"
It's a dark moment. More pessimistic than any pronouncement of Zizek's about Varoufakis' European idealism. And when he starts discussing the ISIS strategy of "eliminating the greyzone" by causing a crackdown on all Muslims in the West, it's not just Springsteen's Nebraska bleak. It's Reznor's Downward Spiral bleak. Lou Reed's Berlin bleak. "That strategy's working splendidly right now. Overreacting in a way to cause a long-term crackdown on Muslims," he says, referring to Francois Hollande's recent statements about acts of war. "We are in a very awful time. I don't see interaction with Islam in Europe going anywhere good."
With the Wikileaks founder almost in the room (and he stays to talk to fans in the Q&A), it's natural for there to be a discussion of technology's power to transform the world. "Technology concentrates power in the hands of those who don't want to put it in the hands of the public," Varoufakis says. "Julian turned that on its head." The messianic respect is punctured by Zizek comparing Assange to Christ crawling out of the grave - getting a laugh from most of the audience, but not Assange himself.
Continuing the religious theme, Assange at one point angers a heckler by suggesting that, for a Middle East plagued by ISIS (to whom "no exit strategy is being presented"), the only hope is "something like a new Christianity, swapping out hate for love." Wake up! the heckler shouts. Assange clarifies that it can't be Christianity as we currently see it - Christianity and Islam are competitors. But he persists with his hope in a spirituality of kinds, despite the incredulity and incomprehension of much of his core audience (did George Harrison get heckled when he started taking meditation seriously?), suggesting cryptically: "There needs to be a Christian Islam."
Varoufakis has, at this point, already quoted Monty Python's Life of Brian, so the supergroup's spiritual phase has been covered from the sublime to the ridiculously sublime, and nobody wants to end a show on a downer. A leftist classic, a crowd pleaser, is trotted out: "Capitalism will overthrow itself," Varoufakis says. Audience hearts leap. But the Greek Geddy Lee wants to mess with our heads one last time. "But what will come afterwards could be The Matrix as a documentary," he says. Mic drop.
"Thanks, Morpheus," Zizek quips.
It's all I can do not to throw my panties on the stage.